Niseko: time to move on?
It’s the Japanese ski resort that once seemed to be sustained by Australian visitations alone. But is Niseko still feeling the love?
The conversation started on a ski lift in Victoria, but a few weeks ago. “It’s like Bali on the snow”. Yep, heard that one plenty of times before.
But this time it came from someone who was a bit older, a bit wiser and had worked in Niseko. On the brief chairlift ride he took me through drunken boorishness, powder demolished by snowboarders by 9.30am and the cultural wasteland that he thought the place was becoming.
It got me thinking – has the once-revered Niseko jumped the shark as the ultimate Aussie international snow destination?
The last time I went to Niseko was in 2008. I heard the stories then too. But, save for the powder poaching and my guide’s faux attempt to swerve and hit a wasted buffoon on the side of the road, I wasn’t exactly caught in the cliche. Yet a moment of clarity came nonetheless.
When I walked into a bar and saw maybe 60 or 70 westerners and not a Japanese in sight I said to myself this is the last time I come back here. For me the Japanese experience was always as much about the culture as the skiing. The food, the funky supermarkets, the people, the quirky signs that mangled a bit of English.
In the early 2000s Aussies were spoiled rotten in Niseko. But something has happened on the way to heaven.
“These days it’s an international destination with a Japanese flavour I suppose,” says Dale Goulding, co-founder of Deep Powder Tours, one of the first companies to set up shop there in the mid 1990s.
They come from all across Asia to visit Niseko now with Australians really only dominant for a few weeks in January. That has had several effects according to Goulding: pushing the prices up but also the morons out.
“That’s past a bit I think,” he said of the ugly reputation some Aussies where getting in Niseko. “There just aren’t a lot of options left for the Aussie idiot. The Aussie idiot can’t afford to stay in a thousand dollar a night apartment so that got rid of them.”
Depending on who you speak to Japan makes up to anywhere between a third and a half of all Northern Hemisphere skier and snowboarder visits from Australia. And the indication is that Niseko is still getting around 40,000 bed nights from Australians each season.
Yet the other options seem almost endless there too. From Hakuba/Shiga Kogen and Nozawa Onsen in Honshu to Tomamu and Furano and dozens of other little-known and relatively undiscovered resorts.
“Furano and Tomamu are still as cheap as chips,” says Goulding. “Myoko is cheap. So is Madarao”. (Cheap can mean $A100 a night including accommodation, lift pass and breakfast).
So is there an obvious trend for Aussies in Japan?
“There is still huge growth. There is a world of opportunity no one has even begun to look at outside these ridiculously expensive destinations,” Goulding offers.
“But that is one thing about Niseko. If you want that international experience, if you want beautiful apartments you are only going to get that in Niseko. And, at the end of the day, it is the snow that keeps bringing people back. The drawcard is very very strong. There is no such thing as bad season in Japan – a bad season is eight or nine metres of snow – a good season is 15.”
And perhaps that, along with some other numbers, is the real rub. Turns out my ski lift companion who wasn’t exactly dishing out the superlatives about Niseko will be returning this season after all. Five months secure employment and a five-metre base wins out in the end I guess.